Skip to main content
Enslaved People in the Southeast

Convict Leasing

Although slavery was officially ended with the end of the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, there were numerous efforts to restrict African-Americans from participating in economic, political, and social spheres, particularly after the end of Reconstruction. One system developed in the late 19th which existed through the mid-20th centuries was convict leasing. Convict leasing was a system in which primarily Southern states leased prisoners for penal labor to private corporations, (such as railways and mining) and still existing agricultural large plantations. While the states profited, prisoners earned little or no pay and faced inhumane, dangerous, and often deadly work conditions.

That system was outlawed in 1908, and the prison work gang system replaced it. Convicts lived in farms or camps, and labored on road construction or agricultural projects, sometimes shacked together as a chain gang. The harsh system brought national attention by the 1930s and was ended in Georgia in the 1940s.

The four photographs below are from Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives. The site and circumstances of these photo is unknown. The photo is part of the Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Collection, a major visual resource documenting life in twentieth-century Georgia, housed in Georgia State University’s Special Collections and Archives.

For further reading, please see:

Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War IINew York: Doubleday, 2008.

 

Convicts working on Grant Field

Convicts leased from Fulton County provided free labor to the public improvement projects, such as Grant Field at Georgia Institute of Technology circa 1940. Image courtesy of Georgia Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections.

Public institutions and universities in the South also used convict leasing to make improvements to campuses and other environments.

Grant Field is Georgia Tech’s historic athletic center first acquired by the school in 1904. In 1913, the field was expanded and improvements planned. The grading of the field was completed with convict labor supplied by Fulton County Convict leasing was a common practice during this time and disproportionately affected African-Americans who made up the majority of the inmate population. The work conditions for convict labor was notoriously brutal and unhealthy.

In this photo, Georgia Tech students, in their required coat and tie uniform for classroom instruction, survey the progress on the west bank. The Academic building, Lyman Hall Chemistry Lab, and Knowles Dormitory are visible in the background. Up to 300 convicts some in a chain gang formation worked on the field leveling it and installing a new drainage system to combat the sewer run off and marshy conditions of the field.